Mike DeWine’s long-ambition to be Ohio governor came true last year, giving him the power to advance his agenda and delivering him a capstone to his public service career that has spanned five decades.
So, how did he do in his first year?
“There is such a joy in him about doing this job. It’s kind of different. It’s like he is perfectly suited for it. You can tell he’s loving being governor and I think he’s doing a great job,” said state Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering.
DeWine hired a diverse cabinet with more women in top posts than men; fought for a 19-cent gas tax with automatic increases but settled for 10.5-cents with no inflation boost; implemented a de facto moratorium on executions while Ohio searches for a lethal drug supply line; signed a law to ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected; and crafted a state budget that pours more money into public health, mental health, children and families.
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, co-founder of the Ohio Mayors Alliance, gives DeWine high marks for working with local governments on everyday issues as well as crises.
“It has been a breath of fresh air,” Whaley said of DeWine and his team.
DeWine said he is pleased with the relationships he has with mayors and other local leaders.
“I think it was important that we had to send a signal that we were listening and we wanted to work together. Being able to work together is important,” said DeWine. “This is a state where services get delivered at the local level.”
The agenda for 2020: pass gun safety measures
At 2 a.m. on Aug. 4, DeWine’s public safety director called him on his cell phone to deliver the news of the Oregon District shooting. Hours later, DeWine started texting with Whaley, asking how he could help.
The following day, at a prayer vigil, angry Daytonians shouted “Do Something” at DeWine as the governor addressed the Oregon District crowd. He was momentarily surprised.
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“But then I thought about it and they were mad and they had every right to be mad. It’s a natural reaction. We were standing very close to where the murders occurred.”
In the days following the shooting, DeWine called on lawmakers to pass a universal background check law and he signaled support for a mechanism to allow court-ordered firearms seizures from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.
However, in October, DeWine pulled the curtain back on Senate Bill 221, which calls for voluntary, incentive-based background checks for private party gun sales, and an expansion of the ‘pink slip’ process that orders people in danger be held for 72 hours in a hospital.
Gun control advocates such as Everytown for Gun Safety say SB221 doesn’t do enough while Ohio Gun Owners says it goes too far.
DeWine said it threads a needle between both sides of the issue and it meets his three criteria: it’s constitutional, it’ll be effective, and it can pass the Ohio General Assembly. “We’re trying to save lives and it will save lives with this bill.”
In 2019, DeWine called for more money to fix roads and bridges, a new fund to pay for water protection projects, improved amusement ride safety inspections, a ban on flavored vaping products to protect children, and more than $650 million for wellness programs in K-12 schools.
He also named working groups to give him recommendations on issues such as school safety measures, improving supervision of people released from prisons, improving the foster care system, reducing the incidence of lead poisoning in children and testing public drinking water systems for "forever chemicals."
In 2020, DeWine plans to continue work on that child and family health agenda.
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“I think he and Fran are living their best lives, for sure”
DeWine, who turns 73 today, won’t ride the roller-coasters at the Ohio State Fair but he takes on nearly every other public appearance with gusto. The governor swung through events such as the Little Brown Jug horse race, the Farm Science Review, Manufacturing Day and the Ohio Census 2020 Complete Count Commission.
“This is a man who has always really loved Ohio. I know it sounds kind of hokey but he has loved governance and he has loved the people and the communities that he has governed. That shows in how he has approached the job,” said Lehner.
Aside from traveling the state, DeWine has invested the time needed to build relationships. Shortly after his inauguration, DeWine began hosting small-group breakfast meetings with legislators from both parties at the Governor’s Residence. Often, Fran DeWine does the cooking.
“In a lot of ways it’s not the modern image of a woman, the things that she does. But she just does them so well and so graciously that I think no one is going to criticize that, that she’s cooking wonderful meals,” said Lehner, who has attended two of the small group breakfasts hosted by the DeWines.
“The goal is to understand what their concerns are, the goal is to exchange ideas in an informal setting where people feel comfortable talking,” DeWine said. “It pays dividends. If an issue comes up, it’s easier for me to talk with them or them to talk to me. Everybody has my cell phone. They call me or they can text me.”
Lehner noted that Republican John Kasich failed to recognize the value of face-to-face politicking with legislators to advance his agenda. “He was always very aloof and I think it showed in how responsive the Legislature was to his programs. On the other hand, this governor is so accessible and really seems to have his hands on a lot of things that we’re working on. He’s a pleasure to work with,” Lehner said.
Whaley, a progressive Democrat who briefly ran for her party’s nomination for governor, has forged an unlikely alliance with DeWine. The two exchange text messages regularly — an outgrowth of their connections made after the Memorial Day tornadoes and the Oregon District shooting.
Whaley stood shoulder to shoulder with DeWine when he detailed his legislative plans to curb gun violence — even though the package doesn’t go as far as Whaley would like.
“I hope we get the gun bill passed. I’m happy to see that’s his top priority. I texted him and told him I appreciate that. I know that’s what he and I will be working on (in 2020,)” Whaley said.
When Ohio voters picked Mike DeWine, they got the DeWine Family as well: Fran, seven adult DeWine children including one on the Ohio Supreme Court, and 24 grandchildren ranging in age from 26 to one. Even the First Dog Teddy had his own Twitter handle — @FirstDogofOhio — until his death in November.
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Granddaughter Caroline sang in the Statehouse for her grandfather’s swearing-in; Steven helped Grandma DeWine grind wheat into flour for homemade pizza at the Ohio State Fair; and grandson William went to Ohio Fish Day with Grandpa DeWine on Lake Erie to promote the tourism industry.
“I think he and Fran are living their best lives, for sure,” Whaley said. “I think both he and the first lady enjoy the job immensely.”
The college jock and the guy who got a D in golf
DeWine tells a self deprecating story about as an undergraduate at Miami University, he earned good marks, except in golf. He got a D. Husted, a University of Dayton football star, confesses that the only D he got in a college course was in art appreciation.
The two men started the 2018 gubernatorial race as rivals for the same job. Now they’re on the same team and both say their skill sets are complementary.
“They’re proving to be a very good team,” Lehner said.
DeWine relied on Husted, an avid hunter, to help craft and sell the gun safety bill. The governor also tapped Husted to focus on bringing more technology solutions into state government and turbo charging the workforce development programs that Ohio offers.
“Jon has been invaluable,” DeWine said. “It’s a great partnership and a great benefit to the state.”
SPECIAL INTERVIEW WITH GOV. DEWINE
Watch WHIO Reports this morning at 11:30 a.m. on Channel 7 for Jim Otte’s interview with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. You can also listen to it on 1290 and 95.7 WHIO today at 8:30 a.m.